Are You B.C. Experienced?
Have you ever been Experienced? Well, I have. Let me tell you about it.
This week I managed to sneak into The B.C. Experience, a $12-million attraction opening June 26 behind the Empress Hotel. There’s been plenty of curiosity about the Experience because it’s the first new tourist amusement downtown for 30 years (not counting the IMAX theatre), and it’s taken over the famous Crystal Gardens – Canada’s largest swimming pool when it opened in 1925, and one of the last old iron-and-glass structures remaining in the country.
The event was a reception for Times Colonist advertisers, in the hope they’d buy into a supplement the paper’s doing to promote the Experience. Mel Cooper, the president of the venture, and TC ad chief Peter Baillie spoke to the crowd. It’s a challenge opening a new attraction when visits by Americans are plunging along with their dollar, Baillie admitted; nonetheless, the Experience plans to greet 350,000 visitors in the first year, and 60 percent of them from Vancouver Island. Baillie noted that half of Victoria residents have never been to Butchart Gardens. He said it’s time they “step up to the plate,” do their patriotic duty, and support local attractions like the Experience.
But will they? After taking the tour, I’m not so sure. What you’ll get for a $15 admission ($7 for kids) is essentially an Expo pavillion, as brought to you by Future Shop. Several theatres display hi-def versions of films you've seen on Knowledge Network's "B.C. Moments": mountain vistas, lush rainforests, swelling seas. "Information stations" contain mural-sized images of ubiquitous provincial icons (Emily Carr, Rick Hansen), accompanied by blurbs in ponderous adspeak. (“David Suzuki. The indomitable spirit.”) Fibreglass models akin to the Spirit Bears littering every street corner allow you to mug for fakey snapshots – sitting in a kayak with a fibreglass killer-whale fin rising up beside you, for example.
In other words, the B.C. Experience is much like Gillette's five-bladed razor: it’s redundancy packaged as innovation. Consider the attraction’s showpiece, a 3,400 square-foot map of the province, set into the Gardens’ old swimming pool. It’s fairly impressive, but there’s already one like it at the Royal B.C. Museum across the street. And both are dwarfed by the 6,200-foot plywood relief map – the world’s largest – carved by George Challenger in the 1950s (he’s standing on it at left) that graced the PNE for many years, and currently moulders in a Richmond warehouse.
The Experience will be great for cruise-ship passengers, to give them a broader sense of our province before they steam through it to Alaska. But how many locals will pay $15 to read Ministry of Tourism advertising, gawk at computer terminals, and shop for smoked salmon? British Columbians, like most visitors, are here for visceral, authentic experiences they can’t have anywhere else – like chasing a bear away from a campsite, bombing down a mountainside on a snowboard, or smoking a doobie without fear of jail time. (Butchart Gardens may be a tourist trap, but at least its fireworks and rose gardens are visually and olfactorily real.) If all you want is a virtual B.C. experience, there are already plenty of them online.
I do hope the Experience succeeds. Mel Cooper's a wonderful guy, and as the author of a guidebook, I certainly want more visitors coming this way. And perhaps it will work: many people like watching things (adventure sports, kinky sex) they don't actually do. (Less effort, or risk of injury that way.) But if the Experience is counting on local traffic for its viability, it may have difficult times ahead – as proven by a recent news poll conducted by CFAX, the radio station Cooper ran for many years.
The good news in all this is that the Provincial Capital Commission paid for a complete seismic upgrade of the Crystal Gardens, so it will be impossible to justify tearing the building down if the Experience stumbles. And underneath the giant map, the historic tiled pool remains intact. Convert part of the Gardens into a high-end spa, and turn the rest into a public baths and elegantly palm-strewn lounge, I say. That's what it famously was (see the 1957 Maclean's cover above right), and could be again.
UPDATE (August 21, 2008): As everyone now knows, the Experience collapsed after 12 weeks in business. A good summary of what happened has been posted here. For a real trip into the Experience's memory hole, though, check out this video of premier Gordon Campbell at the grand opening.
"When you come to the BC Experience," Gordo tells the half-hearted crowd, "as a citizen who lives here, it's not what you will see, it isn't what you will know, it's what you will feel. You'll feel pride in our province." Well, exactly. To 21st-century politicians, feeling is always more important than seeing or knowing.